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Film review: A Hidden Life

17 January 2020

Stephen Brown sees a film about a martyrdom

August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter (left) and the late Bruno Ganz as Judge Lueben in A Hidden Life

August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter (left) and the late Bruno Ganz as Judge Lueben in A Hidden Life

TERRENCE MALICK’s A Hidden Life (Cert. 12A) depicts Franz Jägerstätter unwittingly facing the consequences of Austria’s 1938 annexation to Germany. “I thought we’d built our nest high up,” he says; but it is still not lofty enough to avoid Nazi clutches.

August Diehl plays Jägerstätter, a devoted Christian, cultivating land physically nearer heaven than earth. A disrupted Edenic existence has typified Malick’s films ever since Days of Heaven (1978). The new regime just won’t let Jägerstätter alone. He undergoes basic training, while his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), struggles to tend family and crops. Jägerstätter is incarcer­ated for refusing to swear obedience to Hitler. Franziska endures hostil­ity within the community.

Few seem to recognise evil when they see it. A workman restoring the church’s wall-paintings pre­dicts: “A darker time is coming, and men will be more clever. They don’t con­front the truth.They just ignore it.” Jägerstätter’s parish priest, bishop, and interrogators all sug­gest that his sacrifice will benefit no­­­body. They exemplify an unfor­tun­ate dif­ference, at least on this occasion, between religion (Catholicism, National Socialism) and faith.

There is no happy ending. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Roman Catholic Church sanctioned his beatification as a martyr. The title derives from George Eliot’s Middle­march, acknowledging “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”. The film argues that nothing is hidden that shall not (eventually) be made known (cf. Luke 8.17).

What struck me was Jäger­stätter’s passivity, faced with bru­tal­ity. He epitomises the Suffer­ing Servant: “He was op­­pressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53.7). We are left uncertain about his silence. In a letter written shortly before execu­tion in 1943, he says “If I must write . . . with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffer­ing. . . I cannot be­­lieve that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.”

This passage alone would be enough to stimulate Malick into making a film. As with others (Thomas Merton, for example), Jägerstätter is a source of inspira­tion. In many ways, A Hidden Life continues Malick’s preoccupation with individuals who transcend social norms. Sanctity is found in those Malick characters who are able to harmonise with nature in all its beauty and terrifying demands, notably in The Tree of Life (Arts, 8 July 2011). Their spirituality is not irrational, but recognises, like Pascal, that the heart has reasons known only to the heart. The film’s hero doesn’t abandon life’s harsh realities by retreating into nature. The transcendence comes by re­­main­ing close to God through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy.

The picture has a dreamlike quality, thanks to the use of short-focus lens. The anamorphic effect presents us with people no longer reflecting their true selves but dis­torted images. A Hidden Life is a salutory tract for all times. Watch­ing this should whet our appetite for Malick’s next project, The Last Planet, based on the parables.

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